See the 2022 Best Countries rankings »

The 2022 Best Countries rankings are live »See who's No. 1

Tonga Volcano Blast Was Unusual, Could Even Warm the Earth

Scientists are still trying to understand the effects of the Tongan volcano eruption earlier this year.

Tonga Volcano Blast Was Unusual, Could Even Warm the Earth

FILE - In this photo provided by New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupts near Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean on Jan. 14, 2015. The volcano shot millions of tons of water vapor high up into the atmosphere according to a study published Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in the journal Science. Researchers estimate the event raised the amount of water in the stratosphere - the second layer of the atmosphere, above the range where humans live and breathe - by around 5%. (AP Photo/New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) The Associated Press

By MADDIE BURAKOFF, AP Science Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — When an undersea volcano erupted in Tonga in January, its watery blast was huge and unusual — and scientists are still trying to understand its impacts.

The volcano, known as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, shot millions of tons of water vapor high up into the atmosphere, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The researchers estimate the eruption raised the amount of water in the stratosphere — the second layer of the atmosphere, above the range where humans live and breathe — by around 5%.

Now, scientists are trying to figure out how all that water could affect the atmosphere, and whether it might warm Earth’s surface over the next few years.

Political Cartoons

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” said lead author Holger Voemel, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.

Big eruptions usually cool the planet. Most volcanoes send up large amounts of sulfur, which blocks the sun’s rays, explained Matthew Toohey, a climate researcher at the University of Saskatchewan who was not involved in the study.

The Tongan blast was much soggier: The eruption started under the ocean, so it shot up a plume with much more water than usual. And since water vapor acts as a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, the eruption will probably raise temperatures instead of lowering them, Toohey said.

It’s unclear just how much warming could be in store.

Karen Rosenlof, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was not involved with the study, said she expects the effects to be minimal and temporary.

“This amount of increase might warm the surface a small amount for a short amount of time,” Rosenlof said in an email.

The water vapor will stick around the upper atmosphere for a few years before making its way into the lower atmosphere, Toohey said. In the meantime, the extra water might also speed up ozone loss in the atmosphere, Rosenlof added.

But it’s hard for scientists to say for sure, because they’ve never seen an eruption like this one.

The stratosphere stretches from around 7.5 miles to 31 miles (12 km to 50 km) above Earth and is usually very dry, Voemel explained.

Voemel's team estimated the volcano’s plume using a network of instruments suspended from weather balloons. Usually, these tools can’t even measure water levels in the stratosphere because the amounts are so low, Voemel said.

Another research group monitored the blast using an instrument on a NASA satellite. In their study, published earlier this summer, they estimated the eruption to be even bigger, adding around 150 million metric tons of water vapor to the stratosphere — three times as much as Voemel's study found.

Voemel acknowledged that the satellite imaging might have observed parts of the plume that the balloon instruments couldn’t catch, making its estimate higher.

Either way, he said, the Tongan blast was unlike anything seen in recent history, and studying its aftermath may hold new insights into our atmosphere.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Coronavirus Bulletin

Stay informed daily on the latest news and advice on COVID-19 from the editors at U.S. News & World Report.

Sign up to receive the latest updates from U.S News & World Report and our trusted partners and sponsors. By clicking submit, you are agreeing to our Terms and Conditions & Privacy Policy.

You May Also Like

The 10 Worst Presidents

Not all U.S. presidents are missed once they leave the White House.

Cartoons on President Donald Trump

Photos: Obama Behind the Scenes

A collection of moments during and after Barack Obama's presidency.

Photos: Who Supports Joe Biden?

The former vice president has become the Democratic front-runner with primary victories across the country.

Biden Bruised By OPEC Blow

The dramatic decision led by Russia and Saudi Arabia portends a political morass for the White House at home and growing adversity abroad.

See More »

Recommended Articles